Terry Renna, Associated Press
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Atlantis and four astronauts returned from the International Space Station in triumph Thursday, bringing an end to NASA's 30-year shuttle journey with one last, rousing touchdown that drew cheers and tears.
A record crowd of 2,000 gathered near the landing strip, thousands more packed the space center and countless others watched history unfold from afar as NASA's longest-running spaceflight program came to a close.
"After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle's earned its place in history. And it's come to a final stop," radioed commander Christopher Ferguson.
"Job well done, America," replied Mission Control.
The twilight landing, just before dawn, came 30 years and three months after the very first shuttle flight in 1981. It will be another three to five years at best before Americans are launched again from U.S. soil, with private companies gearing up to seize the Earth-to-orbit-and-back baton from NASA.
The long-term future for American space exploration is just as hazy, a huge concern for many at NASA and all those losing their jobs because of the shuttle's end. Asteroids and Mars are the destinations of choice, yet NASA has yet to settle on a rocket design to get astronauts there.
Thursday, though, belonged to Atlantis and its crew: Ferguson, co-pilot Douglas Hurley, Rex Walheim and Sandra Magnus, who completed a successful space station resupply mission.
Atlantis' main landing gears touched down at 5:57 a.m., with "wheels stop" less than a minute later.
"The space shuttle has changed the way we view the world and it's changed the way we view our universe," said Ferguson. "There's a lot of emotion today, but one thing's indisputable. America's not going to stop exploring.
"Thank you Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour and our ship Atlantis. Thank you for protecting us and bringing this program to such a fitting end."
The astronauts' families and friends, as well as shuttle managers and NASA brass, gathered near the runway to welcome Atlantis home — and bid the shuttle program goodbye. Mission Control in Houston also was packed, teeming with past and present flight directors. Hundreds of other Johnson Space Center employees stood outside, watching the landing on a jumbo screen.
NASA's five space shuttles launched, saved and revitalized the Hubble Space Telescope; built the space station, the world's largest orbiting structure; and opened the final frontier to women, minorities, schoolteachers, even a prince. The first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn, became the oldest person ever in space, thanks to the shuttle. He was 77 at the time; he turned 90 this week.
Born with Columbia, it was NASA's longest-running space exploration program.
It was truly a homecoming for Atlantis, which first soared in 1985. The next-to-youngest in NASA's fleet will remain at Kennedy Space Center as a museum display.
This grand finale came 50 years to the day that Gus Grissom became the second American in space, just a half-year ahead of Glenn.
Atlantis — the last of NASA's three surviving shuttles to retire — performed as admirably during descent as it did throughout the 13-day flight. A full year's worth of food and other supplies were dropped off at the space station, just in case the upcoming commercial deliveries get delayed. The international partners — Russia, Europe, Japan — will carry the load in the meantime.
It was the 135th mission for the space shuttle fleet, which altogether flew 542 million miles and circled Earth more than 21,150 times over the past three decades. The five shuttles carried 355 people from 16 countries and, altogether, spent 1,333 days in space — almost four years.
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